Complexity Simplified: A Better Way to Curate Content

complex brain

I’ve had two great conversations with two great marketers in the past week: Ed Thomas of Process Unity, and Jim Burns of Avitage.

I recently moved to Ayer, Massachusetts, and as it turns out, Ed lives just around the corner from me. We met last Thursday for burgers and wine, and in our second glass we made a mutual confession: “strategy” makes our eyes glaze over. When someone takes the stage to talk “strategy,” nine times out of ten, they’re making a grandiose claim for whatever their own S.O.P. happens to be. Worse, that grandiose strategy often has little relation to practical marketing realities. What do we really need? Stuff that works.

By sheer coincidence, I had a call scheduled with Jim the following morning. A casual introductory call turned into a two-hour plus deep discussion about the impact of digital technologies on publishing and marketing. Understand, Jim was a digital guy back when being “digital” meant being able to print a banner of your name (over the course of two hours) with ASCII characters from a dot-matrix printer connected, by a phone receiver in a modem cradle, to a distant mainframe. In other words, back when today’s lords of technology weren’t even gleams in their fathers’ eyes.

Many people say we should “think like a publisher,” but Jim is one of the few who has translated the aphorism into an effective working principle: thinking like a publisher means collecting source material from which you can create MANY relevant content pieces on the fly. Multiplicity leads to efficiency which leads to profitability. In other words, we can’t just think like publishers, we have to think like Henry Ford or Eli Whitney.

In Jim’s mind, the real problem isn’t “strategy” per se, it’s the gap between the overall strategic objective and the marketing tactics intended to fulfill it. The missing piece is PROCESS, an intelligent, digitally enabled way to collect and retrieve valuable source material (video, copy, images) that can be quickly retrieved and repurposed into an almost unlimited variety of relevant content outputs.

I don’t want to steal Jim’s thunder. You can hear it and feel it here in his post, Complexity Simplified  — The B2B Selling Dilemma. In it, Jim takes a deep dive into his vision: why we need better a better way to operationalize our strategies, the consequences of failing to do so, and the core things we need to change before we get there. Please read, learn, share and comment.

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Content Marketing Awards 2017 now open!


Good news content creators (and managers): the Content Marketing Institute has formally opened its Content Marketing Awards for entries. You’ll find the application here: http://contentmarketingawards.com.

Some of you may be thinking, “Hey, I’m not an enterprise player, what chance do I have against the big boys?”

Good news: a very fair chance indeed. As a judge in last year’s contest (and I’m delighted to have the honor this year as well), I can assure you that the judges genuinely look for merit. Ingenuity beats production slickness, strategy tops budget, and relevant substance trumps empty good looks.

So give it a shot. A few hints that’ll help:

  • Measurable results are a huge plus. See if you can find the numbers
  • In your application, be prepared to explain your reasoning. Why did you execute this campaign? What relevant buyer/audience concerns or desires did you address?
  • Show us the risky stuff, the work that went beyond the obvious to explore unexpected opportunities to connect. That’s what I like to see.

Good luck!

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Video: Fundamentals of copywriting, handling the difficult stuff

The good people of Webcertain.TV, all the way from York, England found me in Boston, Massachusetts. We didn’t refight the revolution; instead, we talked about the fundamentals of copywriting, and practical tactics for marketing boring, complex and/or undifferentiated products.

Learn about the advantages of danger, the power of “plumber’s magnets,” and why nothing is ever really “boring.”


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What some people stole from Content Marketing World 2016

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-9-45-39-am Forty-two gurus, plus myself, were asked by Magnificent Marketing to suggest their top takeaways from Content Marketing World in Cleveland. (Theft, takeaway–its all semantics here.)

Me, I took away a stack of business cards, a broken rib (breakdancing at a hotel after-party), and a number of hazy memories I hope have not been recorded for posterity on social media.

Oh. And some insights. You can scroll down the post to find mine. The others are as good or better.

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Up front with lessons from Down Under
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At the latest Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland, I had the privilege of leading the pre-conference workshop on “Web Writing 201.” Joe Pulizzi had pulled me in for the task, and my first hurdle was to think about what distinguished advanced web writing from basic web writing.

So I defined the basics as: storytelling, writing from/to the audience’s point of view, and developing a steady stream of relevant content.

The advanced, 201 stuff? To me, it’s about:

  • Learning how to tease, rather than please (that is, completely satisfy curiosity)
  • Applying strategies to communicate quickly to skimmers/scanners
  • Figuring out how to sustain those regular content streams

Fortunately, I don’t have to tell you more. Because one of the attendees, Peter Gearin of BrandTales in Australia, has done the heavy lifting for me–and for you. In his article summarizing the workshop, “3 Secrets to Writing Successful Content,” you’ll get an in-depth explanation of the 201 concepts, plus the cool kangaroo story (this is that “tease” thing I mentioned) that transformed the way I write copy, and became the justification for the image accompanying this post.

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Love ya’ TechCrunch, but you’re missing the substance of content marketing

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 12.13.09 PMYesterday, Samuel Scott of TechCrunch rolled the golden apple of discord onto the lunch tables of tech marketers everywhere. In the eye-pokingly titled, Everything the Tech World Says About Marketing is Wrong, Scott takes aim at two contemporary shibboleths of contemporary marketing: “inbound marketing” and “content marketing.”

Part of me is gleeful: Scott correctly takes down a great deal of the nonsense that has surrounded both of these disciplines. If what you’re really doing is blasting tens of thousands of email each week, you’re not marketing “inbound” at all. And if you’re just belching promo copy out the wazoo, you’re not “content marketing,” you’re just flooding the landscape with crap (a point I made nearly four years ago on this blog).

Yet Scott’s criticism is indiscriminate, failing to distinguish good from bad content marketing in a wholesale condemnation of the entire practice. (I won’t defend inbound marketing per se, because that’s not my turf.) Part of the fault lies, not with Scott, but with some of content marketing’s biggest stars: too many have defined “content” too broadly: ads, brochures and other promotional materials might be defined (by those with a greater appetite for euphemism than I have) as marketing “assets,” but they are not content.

For the record: content is material that has intrinsic value for consumers or buyers. In the B2C world, content may provide amusement, recreation and/or entertainment. In the B2B world that I live in, content provides information, insights and/or practical wisdom valuable to our prospective buyers. Think of it as a kind of currency: in exchange for your attention, I’m offering expertise worthy of your time: a whitepaper with relevant research, a how-to article, an ebook about effective, proven processes, a video demonstration of an idea in action, etc.

Scott insists that marketers go back to basics. I can’t argue with that. But I can argue that the basics have changed. Traditional direct marketing and advertising have not been merely supplemented by the Internet, but often supplanted by it. The web is not merely another channel, but the primary way our buyers actively seek information. Pushing ads and pumping out emails isn’t enough (or close to enough); you have to intercept buyers when they are seeking answers, and contribute answers they respect.

Content is that means of interception. Content is the vehicle by which tech companies earn credibility and establish authority. Content is what gives your company the power to shape the sales conversation; frankly, it’s the lever that allows your company to get on the short list of companies who will have these conversations with buyers at all.

By all means, master the marketing basics. But understand that properly understood, “content marketing” — in a brave new world where buyers have the power to direct their attention when and where they wish — is part of the basics. If you don’t have great content, you’re just sitting on your “assets.”


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Genius Marketing for Boring, Complex, or Non-Differentiated Products

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Want some practical approaches to marketing the really tough stuff? The boring product, the complex service, the “parity” or commodity product?

In the latest Salesforce Marketing Cloudcast podcast, I articulate the challenges and offer time-tested ways of overcoming them. My hosts, Joel Book and Heike Young, have called the resulting recording, “Genius Marketing for Boring, Complex, or Non-Differentiated Products.” Please note that “genius” is their word, not mine, but I am flattered.

When you tune in to listen, you’ll discover:

  • Why clarity can beat creativity
  • How to apply the “plumber’s magnet” approach to making urgent offers
  • Where “boring” becomes vitally interesting
  • What book you absolutely must read if you want to write compelling copy (aside from Writing Copy for Dummies, naturally)



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Content marketing is hard — thank goodness

In a recent CMI newsletter, Joe Pulizzi challenged marketers to the “content test”: Take your best piece of content, strip it of branding, and compare it with your competitors’ best work. Now step back and take a look. Is your content truly distinct? Would anyone, without the brand clues, recognize it as yours?

Joe goes even further: “What if your content marketing was removed from the planet entirely? Would anyone miss it?”

If you’re not breaking into a sweat, you should be.

Content Marketing World is just two months away, and I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m looking forward to it. (In fact, I’m leading two sessions there.) I can anticipate, however, that many speakers and exhibitors will be promoting tools, techniques and services that promise to make content marketing easy. Just use this application, apply this methodology, follow this model and–whammo!–instant content marketing. Easy.

Now, I’m all for making marketing easier, given our limited time, limited budgets, and limitless (it seems) obligations. But I think all of us should reject “easy” content.

Easy content is exactly the kind of content that fails the Pulizzi Test. Easy content is forgettable content. Easy content is noise. Easy content fails.

Easy content is what you should gleefully watch your competitors make.

Your content should be hard. It’ll be hard because you’ll take pains to find out what your customers really want and need to see, hear, learn, feel and experience.

It’ll be hard because it’ll reflect deep thought in its conception, and detailed effort in its execution.

It’ll be hard because it’ll reject conventional wisdom, defy common expectations, and reach for surprising insights or ideas.

It’ll be hard because it won’t be cheap–it’ll consume the budget and resources it needs to be truly excellent.

It’ll be hard because, frankly, if it really stands out from the pack, many of the people in your own organization won’t like it. Many of them will be scared.

But you’ll face all these obstacles with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Why? Because by doing the hard stuff your competitors don’t have the will for, you’ll gain the competitive edge. Rise above the noise. And gain the returns your competitors just can’t easily grab.

In any content test you choose, there is no contest: hard beats easy every time.

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What vinyl should mean to content marketers
BF Goodrich 1966 Sales Meeting album

Don't you wish you could spin this one for your friends?

The Onion’s A.V. Club recently ran a snarky little article, Vinyl is just a fad, record executives say, to belittle music industry insiders who fail to appreciate vinyl’s surprising resurgence in sales. Now, I love records, and spend probably too much time and money adding more vinyl to the thousands of lps that already line my walls. But, c’mon everybody, of course vinyl is a fad. Recent sales notwithstanding, is it really possible to imagine vinyl as a sustained medium for distributing music? We all know that in a few years, this vinyl resurgence will be one of the things people in decades to come will associate with the whacky 2010’s, like yoga pants or frozen yogurt franchises.

So I’m NOT suggesting that content marketers should add vinyl albums to their content mix. (Although the Rick Springield 45 was a nice speaker gift at Content Marketing World 2012.) But I do recommend that content marketers reflect on what this vinyl resurgence means: There’s a growing, unmet hunger for the tangible, the touchable, the physical in lives that have become waaaaaaaay too digital.

What might this content look like? Well, at Content Marketing World 2014, one of the exhibitors packaged their content ideas into a neat little stitched booklet about the size of a passport; it’s attractive look and feel made it one of the few swag items I carried home with me. I love the way Jordan’s Furniture turns their showrooms into family destinations complete with movie theaters, waltzing waters, trapeze swings and more. One of my own clients, Viessmann USA, runs hands-on classrooms that give heating/plumbing contractors direct experience serving and maintaining some of the world’s most sophisticated boilers.

These content producers operate in very different industries with different markets and purposes in mind. Yet each has found a way to use physical experience as an important part of the way they communicate value. How can you make the 3D world another dimension of your marketing?



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One of Ann Handley’s top tips for creating a writing culture? Training!

Ann says training is a top ten priority.

As you might imagine, I’m tickled pink by Ann Handley’s recent article, 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Writing; there, at the climax of the list, at big number ten, is the concluding tip: Invest in Training.

You know I’m all about training in-house teams in marketing writing and content creation. And I’ve had the privilege of participating in MarketProfs writing bootcamps. But if you’re seriously considering writing training for your own organization, here are a few things you should consider:

  • Customized curriculum: The cliche is true–one size does not fit all. You should ask for, and get, a curriculum tailored to your objectives; your team should be trained in the skills urgently relevant to your company.
  • Hands-on exercises: Passively enduring a PowerPoint presentation is torture, not training. Real learning begins by doing real work. Live. In practice. In the moment. Demand writing exercises from your trainer, not a dog and pony show.
  • One-on-one attention and feedback: The true magic lies here, in the personalized feedback a skilled writing teacher can give to teams, small groups and, best of all, to each participating individual.

If you agree with me, you’ll understand that webinars and most other forms of digital “learning” have limited value; they can point to good ideas, but only direct engagement can actually inculcate effective writing skills. Live, hands-on training equals real learning.

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